The Mirror Stage: Gift-Giving Ideas for All Babies

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Every baby deserves to be loved so much–Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury’s lively picture book.

“What better way to welcome a little one to the world than with a brilliant selection of books?” This sentiment, which began the Toppsta blog “Top 10 Books for a Baby’s Bookshelf” (https://toppsta.com/blog/view/top-10-books-for-baby-bookshelf 5th December 2017) is one with which I can heartily agree.  And the suggestions, which included books by Beatrix Potter, Eric Carle, Raymond Briggs and the Ahlbergs, are all books that found a place in my own and/or my child’s nursery.  But while these classic texts are enjoyable, there are other babies’ books that deserve to be on every shelf, and my daughter’s bookshelf also included books with people who looked like her.  Recently, when we welcomed a new baby cousin into the family, I decided to send only books with BAME main characters in them—knowing that someone else would buy A Very Hungry Caterpillar for the little one.

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Venus produced a series of board books for Firetree books with BAME children enjoying everyday activities.

My task proved to be harder than I had anticipated, especially with regard to that babyhood staple, board books.  Children need books that will comfort, and if you’ve ever had a teething baby, you know there’s no comfort like a book to chew on.  One of my favourite board books for this purpose, because it is both eatable and about eating at the same time, is Pamela Venus’s Let’s Feed the Ducks (Firetree 2016).  All of Venus’s board books for Firetree are lovely, but the cover illustration of this happy boy with his bag of duck food is enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face—including your baby’s.

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My daughter had one that she loved to shreds: Carol Thompson’s Blankies celebrates babies’ comfort objects.

The illustrations in Venus’s books are realistic, and while I feel it is critical for small children to have accurate depictions of people who look like them, there is also a pleasure in more “cartoony” pictures—as evidenced by the success of authors like Allan and Janet Ahlberg.  There is something pleasing about the round shapes and simple features of the toddlers depicted in Carol Thompson’s Blankies (Child’s Play 2013), and the topic of comfort objects is one that appeals to most children.

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We love you, don’t eat the crayon–Grace Nichols offers admonition and admiration for a curious baby.

Unsurprisingly, babies like books about . . . babies.  Two of my favorites that combine lively, bouncy text with cheerful illustrations of families in love with their babies are Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury’s So Much (Walker 1994) and Grace Nichols and Eleanor Taylor’s No, Baby, No! (Bloomsbury 2011—my copy has a cd of Nichols reading the text as well).  Anna McQuinn’s Zeki Can Swim! (Alanna 2016) and Molly Bang’s Ten, Nine, Eight (HarperCollins 2003) speak to common experiences (swim class and bedtime) for babies and toddlers in simple text meant to be shared between parent and child.

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Counting to one, again and again, with this multiracial family.

Molly Bang’s book brings up another category every good baby library should include: early concept books, those that teach the alphabet, counting, colours and similar basic ideas.  Many of the good BAME alphabet books are designed for slightly older (4-6 years) readers—such as Valerie Bloom’s Fruits, a classic in its own right that introduces readers to ideas beyond “A is for Apple”, and Verna Wilkins’s ABC I Can Be, which discusses career options for all children.  For a similar age, I like Hena Khan and Mehrdokht Amini’s Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns (Chronicle 2015), which teaches colours and aspects of Muslim family life at the same time.  These are all good choices to stock a baby’s library, waiting for when they are ready for them; an early concept book suitable for babies and toddlers to enjoy is George Shannon and Blanca Gómez’s One Family (Farrar Strauss and Giroux 2015), a counting book that (without a huge fanfare) shows that everyone counts.

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Elizabeth Hammill compiled this nursery rhyme collection with the help of Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book.

Finally, I think that any good gift library for new families should include nursery rhymes, which introduce the youngest listeners to concepts of rhyme, rhythm, and sound.  Grace Hallworth and Caroline Binch’s Down by the River (Heinemann 1996) is a classic text including many rhymes familiar to all (parent) readers (such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away”) in an evocative Caribbean setting.  A less localized collection is Elizabeth Hammill’s collection of nursery rhymes, Over the Hills and Far Away (Frances Lincoln 2014) which has rhymes from around the world illustrated by a wide variety of illustrators.

These are just a few of the books available for the very youngest book audience showcasing children from BAME backgrounds.  I offer them not as replacements for Peter Rabbit or The Snowman, but as additions to ANY new baby’s library.  It is never to early to offer babies mirrors of themselves in books—nor to show them that other babies may look slightly different, but they all do baby things, make baby noises, and reach out for the love of their parents through the medium of books.

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A Change is Gonna Come: The Diverse Voices Symposium at Seven Stories

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The brilliant and optimistic collection from Stripes includes writing from Diverse Voices? participants Darren Chetty, Patrice Lawrence and Catherine Johnson.

In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).  This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant.  During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Archives—archivists, curators, and librarians—that was both personal and professional.  They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature.  As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people.  This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 5).  Friday’s Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature.  Today’s blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from Friday and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.

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Verna Wilkins discusses her life in publishing for a multiracial Britain at the Diverse Voices? symposium.

Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!”  In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world.  A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).  Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives.  Collections director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.  Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I—like most of the Seven Stories staff—was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege.  What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically sidelined?  I did not want to replicate old histories.  I suggested we bring some intellectuals—writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people—from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly.  Sarah agreed—as did so many of the great names that we invited.

Discussing Crongton, war, poverty and racism with Alex Wheatle.

We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr.  The themes of Freedom City were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society.  King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.  I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues—from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”.  All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them.  As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”

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Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story is about being “other” for a lot of reasons–not about being white.

Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium.  Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”.  SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”

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Does a diverse book have to be “about” diversity? Does a diverse author have to appear as “other”?

Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s.  And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period.  This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.”  And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”

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S. I. Martin (pictured), Patrice Lawrence and Sarah Lawrance all discussed the importance of archives to the promotion of diversity in society at the symposium.

There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled.  Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”

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Onyefulu’s A is for Africa is one way that she makes a difference–a difference she expects everyone to try to enact.

Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them.  Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing.  The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit. But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone.  Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books.  We must read differently—think differently—speak differently.  We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.

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We have to talk, and continue to talk, to each other–even when those conversations are difficult.

In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:

“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).

It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard.  When it goes wrong—as it will—we must keep on trying.  This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books—for all kids.

To Be Young Adult, Gifted and Black: BAME YA Literature Milestones, Part Two

This week’s blog continues the history of Black and BAME British YA literature.  1981, the year that starts the second half of the timeline, is significant for YA literature.  The end of what scholar Anthony DiGesare calls “the long 1970s”, a period when race was the focus for both Black and white Britons from Enoch Powell to future Guardian prize-winner Alex Wheatle, 1981 saw the Brixton Riots bring institutional racism into the spotlight for the first—but by no means the last—time.

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YA novelist Alex Wheatle was among the people who experienced the Brixton Riot of 1981.

1981: The Brixton riots erupt as a response to the perceived racist attitudes of police against the Black British community.  West Indian Children in our Schools, a government report authored by Anthony Rampton, calls for mainstream literature to better represent the increasingly diverse cultures of Britain.  The Rampton report was written in response to increasing tension between the Black and Asian British communities and law enforcement.

1982: The first of the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books is held in Islington Town Hall, London, partly due to lack of outlets for BAME books for children.  New Beacon and Bogle L’Ouverture are major sponsors.

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The cover of one of the IRR’s histories of racism. The fourth book, The Fight Against Racism, shows pictures of the Brixton Riots.

1982: The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) publishes a series of informational books for older readers on racism, starting with The Roots of Racism.  The four books touch on issues of colonialism, slavery, white privilege, police brutality, protests and riots.

1983: Valerie Bloom’s first UK collection of poems, Touch Mi! Tell Mi! is published by Bogle L’Ouverture, aimed at a young adult audience.  Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea (Heinemann), about an Indian village, wins the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

1984: Geraldine Kaye’s Comfort Herself, about a young Black Briton who goes to live with her father in Ghana, wins the Other Award.  Grace Hallworth’s collection of ghost stories from the Caribbean, Mouth Open, Story Jump Out (Methuen) is published.

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Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah was recommended by the Youth Library Group for older readers in the year of the Handsworth riots.

1985: Brixton and Handsworth (in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city) again face clashes between police and Black British youth.  The Youth Libraries Group, in their newly revised list of Multiracial Books for the Classroom, recommend Pen Rhythm, “a lively collection by this well known poet” (100), Benjamin Zephaniah.

1986: 13-year-old Bangladeshi Briton Ahmed Iqbal Ullah is murdered by a classmate on the school playground in Manchester.  Ullah’s murder was racially motivated.

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Nichols’ poetry collection includes British Asian as well as Black British poets.

1988: Britain introduces a National Curriculum; many complain it does not address the needs of diverse Britain, but instead urges assimilation.  Blackie publishes Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols’ collection from Black and Asian poets around the world, Black Poetry (the title was changed to Poetry Jump-Up in the paperback edition).

1993: 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence is killed by a gang of white British youths while he is waiting for a bus.  Lawrence did not know his attackers.  The murder was racially motivated. The official inquiry into Lawrence’s death, the Macpherson Report (1999), would call for many changes, including revisions to the National Curriculum to include anti-racist and diverse teaching and reading materials.  Meiling Jin, a London-based writer of Guyanese Chinese descent, publishes Thieving Summer (Hamish Hamilton)

1997: Poet Benjamin Zephaniah publishes his collection for older readers, School’s Out: Poems Not for School (AK).

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Bali Rai has produced several titles for Barrington Stoke on high interest topics such as football for reluctant readers.

1998: Barrington Stoke, a publisher focused on reluctant and dyslexic children and YA readers, is founded.  They publish books for YA readers by many high-impact BAME authors, including Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman, and Sita Brahmachari.

1999: The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (http://www.racearchive.org.uk/) is set up in Manchester to honor the 13-year-old killed by his classmate; the trust would publish stories of young refugees and immigrants to Manchester, as well as illustrated biographies of BAME Britons created by young people.  Benjamin Zephaniah’s first novel, Face (Bloomsbury), “a story of facial discrimination,” as he calls it, is published.

2000: Black British publisher Tamarind Press publishes the first in its Black Profiles (later renamed Black Stars) series by Verna Wilkins, biographies of living Black Britons of achievement, including author Malorie Blackman.  The Carnegie Medal goes to South African-born white British author Beverley Naidoo for her book about Nigerian refugees, The Other Side of Truth (Puffin).

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Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses led to a series of successful novels–and to her becoming the first Black British Children’s Laureate.

2001: Black British author Malorie Blackman’s novel, Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday), detailing an imagined England where Black Britons have all the power positions, is published.  The book would go on to win a number of book awards.

2003: Black British poet and novelist Benjamin Zephaniah refuses an OBE because of the British Empire’s involvement in slavery.

2004: Guyanese-born poet John Agard publishes Half-Caste (Hodder), a book of poems which encourages readers to “check out” their Black British history.

2009: Publisher Frances Lincoln teams up with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, to offer the Diverse Voices Award.  Poet John Agard’s revision of Dante, The Young Inferno (Frances Lincoln), with illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura, appears and is nominated (not shortlisted) for the Carnegie Medal.

2013: Malorie Blackman is appointed the first Black British Children’s Laureate. Pakistani-born Tariq Mehmood becomes the only non-white author to win the Diverse Voices Award, for his novel You’re Not Proper (Hope Road).  White British author Nick Lake’s In Darkness (Bloomsbury), about the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, is shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

2014: Seven Stories and Frances Lincoln publish a list of “Diverse Voices: 50 of the Best” books for children and young adults (https://www.sevenstories.org.uk/news/latestnews/diverse-voice-top-50).  The BBC and BookTrust collaborate to offer the first BBC Young Writers Award, for short stories by 14-18 year olds.

2015: The Carnegie Medal is awarded to white British author Tanya Landman for her book about post-Civil War African Americans, Buffalo Soldier.  Catherine Johnson’s novel of a poor, Black British woman masquerading as a princess in the early 19th century in order to survive, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, appears from Corgi; it would be shortlisted for the YA Book Prize in 2016.  A graphic novel version of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by John Aggs, appears.

2016: White American author Robin Talley wins the first Amnesty CILIP Honour medal for her book about Civil Rights-era America, The Lies We Tell Ourselves.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom) becomes the first story about Black Britons written by a Black British author to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (Hodder) is shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award; it would win the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and the YA Bookseller’s prize in 2017.

2017: The UK’s Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories in Newcastle, hosts “Diverse Voices?” (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/diversevoices/),  a symposium designed to think about ways to better represent BAME voices in children’s books, archives, museums, prizes and publishing on November 24th.  If you are reading this at first publication, you’ll know that this event has not yet happened, but it’s something I’ve been involved with planning over the last year.  YA authors Alex Wheatle, Catherine Johnson, and Patrice Lawrence are among the invited guests (several other authors, including picture book and middle grade authors, are also participating), and author and publisher Verna Wilkins will also be discussing publishing for a BAME audience.  I’ll be getting ready for the symposium next week, but hope to have a blog or two following the event discussing some of the salient points.  Watch this space!

To Be Young Adult, Gifted and Black: BAME YA Literature Milestones, Part One

Last week, academic librarian and YA social justice activist Edi Campbell produced a list of milestones in American YA literature, beginning in 1965 with the founding of the Council for Interracial Books for Children (the CIBC) and ending (at the time of me writing this blog) with the 2017 establishment of the journal Research on Diversity in Youth Literature.  In between are a host of important book publications, special journal issues, awards, blogs and podcasts, many of which are linked within the document to websites.  You can find her list, 50 Years of Diversity in Young Adult Literature, here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1PVuxIihW4_3gAab-CHT5W0RXH61F0HeD6ouy1yMFOac/edit.

Campbell’s list covers many different types of diversity (including racial, sexual, gender, and ability diversity) but Campbell did not want the list to be only useful to Americans.  She put out a call on Twitter for other scholars to add to the list, including—thanks for the shout-out, Edi!—me.  So what follows are some highlights for BAME Young Adult lit that I hope to add to her list (or at least run parallel with it).  I’ve started a bit earlier than Campbell’s 1965 point of origin, because the British pioneers in the field came in response to a changing Britain (particularly in response to the 1958 Notting Hill riots). It is heavily weighted to Afro-Caribbean authors/characters, because that is my specialty, but I have tried to widen the spectrum as well.  I’ve tried to indicate the author’s background where I can, and have stuck to authors who for at least part of their life lived and worked in the UK (thus, I’ve left off authors published in the UK like VS Reid and Rosa Guy).  Also, it’s important to note that Black Britons were referred to as “West Indians” if they (or their parents) were from the Caribbean until at least 1980, and that British Asians were often considered Black.  If you know of things that should be added to the list, please let me know—and add them to Campbell’s google document yourself.  A more extensive account of the importance of these texts can be found in my recent book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

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This week, I am publishing the timeline to 1980; this covers the period when Windrush generation writers began producing literature for the children of immigrants struggling to fit into and make sense of British society.  It also highlights the nascent and increasing political anger of the new Black Britons.  Next week, I’ll publish the timeline from 1981 onward.

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Of course the teenager’s brother is part of the racist National Front–early teen soap opera where “race” is a factor.

1962: White British author Josephine Kamm publishes Out of Step (Heinemann), an early “problem” novel about a white teenager in love with a West Indian.

1963: The Newsom Report, also known as “Half Our Future,” focuses attention on secondary students in poor (“slum”) areas of Britain.  It is the first major education report to consider what was then called “coloured immigration.”

1964-1967: Andrew Salkey, the Windrush-era writer who had a prominent place in both the BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices, and the Caribbean Artists Movement, becomes the first West Indian to publish children’s books with a major British publisher, his “disaster sequence” with Oxford University Press.

1966: New Beacon Books founded in London by Trinidadian activist John La Rose and his British partner Sarah White.  The publisher/bookstore would be a primary outlet for the Black British community.  Indian-born English writer, Morna Stuart, publishes Marassa and Midnight (Heinemann), about Haitian twins separated during the French Revolution.

1967: The Plowden Report argues that books in schools (both educational and mainstream) should be re-examined to root out “out of date attitudes toward foreigners, coloured people, and even coloured dolls” (London: HMSO, 1967: 71).

1968: Jessica and Eric Huntley start Bogle L’Ouverture Press, a Black British press that would publish poetry by Linton Kwesi Johnson and Valerie Bloom, and the later novels of Andrew Salkey.  In Birmingham, Enoch Powell suggests in his “Rivers of Blood” speech that if immigration—by which he meant “coloured” immigration—wasn’t stopped, blood would flow in the rivers of England.

1969: The George Padmore and Albertina Sylvester Black Supplementary Schools were started by John La Rose and others in the Finsbury Park area, although the schools were formally registered in 1973.  Supplementary schools, which originally started with the British Black Panthers in the mid-1960s, were designed to improve basic skills and teach Black history and culture to young Black Britons; the George Padmore school was specifically for young adults. (http://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/archive/collection/black-education-movement). This same year, the charity Book Trust secures Arts Council funding to allow it to develop new programmes for providing books to low-income families.

1971: University of Sussex doctoral student, Bernard Coard, publishes his pamphlet, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (New Beacon/Bogle L’Ouverture).  In it, he called for Black literature for Black British children.

1972: Community publisher Centerprise, based in the Hackney area of London, publishes Hackney Half-Term Adventure and the poems of Viven Usherwood, a young West Indian boy; these two books, along with communist teacher Chris Searle’s edited collection of poetry from his multiracial classroom, Stepney Words, would sell over 20,000 copies by 1977.

1974: The National Association for Multiracial Education (NAME) is founded in Britain.  White British author Robert Leeson’s novel about slavery, Maroon Boy (Collins), is published. White British author Jean MacGibbon publishes Hal (Heinemann), a novel about a friendship between a white boy recovering from a long illness and a lively West Indian girl.  This book would win the Other Award in 1975.

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The voice of a generation of disaffected Black British youth in the 1970s.

1975: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poetry collection, Dread Beat an’ Blood, is published by Bogle L’Ouverture.  The Children’s Rights Workshop, started by Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann, create the Other Award to recognize books celebrating gender, racial and economic diversity in children’s books.  Horace Ové’s film “Pressure,” about the struggles of second generation Black British youth, debuts.  Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys at Westcroft appears from Topliners.

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Aidan Chambers, the editor of Macmillan’s imprint for teenagers Topliners, recruited Breinburg and Farrukh Dhondy to write for him.

1976: The Notting Hill Carnival erupts into riots when British police attempt to arrest a pickpocket.  Most of those subsequently arrested would be Black British teenagers.  British publisher Collins launches a prize for Multi-Ethnic Fiction; one of its early winners was Farrukh Dhondy for his collection, Come to Mecca—which includes a story based at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival.  Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet is published.  Black and Pakistani British youth make an unusual appearance in British fantasy, in Michael de Larrabeiti’s urban adventure Borribles trilogy, the first of which appears in 1976.

1978: Farrukh Dhondy’s Siege of Babylon is published in Macmillan’s Topliners series, a young adult series edited by Aidan Chambers.  White British author Jan Needle’s controversial My Mate Shofiq (Collins), about racism against Asian Britons in the north of England, is published.  The first in white British author Marjorie Darke’s historical series, The First of Midnight (Kestrel) appears; with the other books in the series, it follows Black Britons from the 18th century to the present. Rock Against Racism, an anti-fascist, punk and reggae music organization, attracts thousands of Black and White British youth to anti-racist causes.

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Darke was one of the first British writers to trace Black History in Britain back through the 18th Century.

1979: The National Committee on Racism in Children’s Books begins publication of a journal, Dragon’s Teeth, to review and comment on multicultural children’s literature.  The journal is edited by Black British librarian Dorothy Kuya.  White British activist Rosemary Stones becomes editor for the Children’s Book Bulletin “for news of progressive moves in children’s literature”.  The first issue has criteria and guidelines for evaluating books for racist attitudes.  The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) produces Our Lives, a collection of stories (many autobiographical) of immigrant teenagers.  White Briton Tony Drake’s Playing it Right (Collins) depicts a multiracial middle school cricket team, including West Indian and Pakistani British players.

1980: The anti-colonial Communist publisher Liberation begins publishing books for children and young adults under the Young World imprint. Andrew Salkey publishes his only novel for young people set in England, Danny Jones (Bogle L’Ouverture); the climax takes place during Notting Hill Carnival.

Decolonizing Children’s Literature

This week, (another) row erupted over Oxbridge’s university curriculum, but this one hit the front pages of the Telegraph and Mail in a particularly disturbing way.  The Telegraph had a photograph of Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for Cambridge’s student union, with the headline, “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/25/decolonise-cambridge-university-row-attack-students-colour-lola-olufemi-curriculums).  To be honest, when I first read it, I laughed; the day that a BAME woman “forces” Oxbridge to do anything will be the day that Queen Elizabeth will hand over her crown to Paddington Bear.  But these papers (I have a hard time attaching the word “news” to them) do not believe what they are printing either; it is a good headline that fuels the hate and suspicion of “foreigners” trying to “destroy our way of life”.  In fact, the letter signed by Olufemi—and about 100 other students, by the way—did not call for the dropping of white authors, but the inclusion of marginalized authors.  A similar “threat” was, according to Sky News, posed by Malorie Blackman when she called for more diversity in children’s books.  Sky reported her comments, erroneously, as children’s literature having “too many white faces” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/26/malorie-blackman-racist-abuse-diversity-childrens-books). Blackman faced a volley of racist abuse on Twitter following the Sky report, which is of course ridiculous—since Blackman’s own work often references “canonical” literature, such as that sort-of-famous writer William Shakespeare.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company adapted Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, which they promoted as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

Why is it that literature is such a focus of fear when it comes to decolonization?  Music has always been open to crossover influences.  In Britain’s relatively recent history, music has even been a catalyst for societal change.  In the 1950s, calypso musicians helped London clubbers cross racial lines (see http://www.blacklondonhistories.org.uk/uncategorized/co-existence-through-calypsos-and-cockney-cabaret/ for a discussion of this, with a link to a British Pathé newsreel of one such event).  White jazz artists and Black calypsonians learned from each other. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, punk and reggae artists united to fight the National Front in the organization Rock Against Racism; the Clash began incorporating reggae influence into their music and no one worried that British punk would collapse.  Literature, like music, involves dialogues with other works of art and with society at large.  New books do not replace old books, they expand our understanding of life.  More is more, not less.

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Members of the Clash and Steel Pulse did not think twice about decolonizing music.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest some ways that books by white Britons, often canonical, can be introduced to readers in tandem with BAME writers in order to illuminate both—and more importantly, to light up the minds of young readers.  The first comparison I’ll suggest is one that I stole from Lissa Paul, who in Beverly Lyon Clark’s and Margaret Higgonet’s Girls, Boys, Books, Toys suggests pairing Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses with Grace Nichols’ Come on into my Tropical Garden (A&C Black, 1988).  This works nicely, but then, most of Nichols’ collections can be thought about sitting comfortably alongside canonical British poets, as Nichols was of the Caribbean generation brought up reading Wordsworth and others—particularly the romantics and Victorians.  Nichols’ poems can also be used to give depth to a study of art—but that is another story (or painting).

The picture book canon in Britain might also be radically revisioned by looking at BAME authors.  I am a great advocate for teaching young readers the politics of ABC books, for example.  “A” is only for apple in certain parts of the world, as putting Brian Wildsmith’s beautiful ABC book from 1962 next to Valerie Bloom’s Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo (Bogle L’Ouverture, 1999) will instantly reveal.  That doesn’t make Wildsmith’s apple any less beautiful—but it does allow young people to think more flexibly about what language (and not just letters) are for.

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A is for Apple–or Ackee. Illustrations by Brian Wildsmith (apple) and Kim Harley (ackee).

One of my favorite books growing up was Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and of course this can be discussed with any of the many refugee books that have appeared about characters from Africa or the Middle East in recent years.  A book such as Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (Bloomsbury, 2001) shares some similarities with Kerr’s book, but has key differences too.  Having kids think about the difference between being a refugee family and being a refugee on your own, for example, can help them think about what it means to belong, and what helps a person cope with trauma.

The “desert island adventure story” has not really been the same in Britain since William Golding’s dreary, dystopic 1954 Lord of the Flies, a re-imagining of Ballantyne’s 1858 Coral Island (itself a “boys’ version” of Robinson Crusoe).  LOTF is a text that can stimulate discussion about community, leadership, gangs, bullying and violence.  So too is Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom, 2016); and Crongton can be seen as an “island” in the midst of London, since most of the main characters never leave its confines.  Does Wheatle’s book present an urban dystopia similar to Golding’s dystopian island?  Or do the Crongton boys have skills, resources, values and attitudes that help them survive better than Golding’s post-war public school boys?  Or both?

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Perhaps she’s looking so grumpy because she’s about to be decolonized . . .

But books do not have to be of the same genre to be compared.  Take Alice in Wonderland—you can’t get more canonical than that—and think about Alice, a girl in a world that makes no sense to her, where the rules seem arbitrary and designed to threaten everyone in general but her in particular.  Even if you don’t discuss the commentary on Victorian society that is highlighted through John Tenniel’s illustration, you can still compare Alice’s situation with a character such as Mary Wilcox in The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Penguin 2015).  Both girls face threats to their own existence and both survive through refusing to accept society’s arbitrary rules.  Maybe it’s time we stop applying our own arbitrary rules to literature, and start decolonizing our minds.

When It’s Safer to be Someone Else: BAME characters and “dressing-up”

The “revelations” this past week over Harvey Weinstein’s repeated assaults on women brought up some very troubling conversations about women.  Many of the news reports showed Weinstein with various actresses who have accused him of sexual assault; the actresses were often smiling and near enough to Weinstein for him to have his arm around them.  But as anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted by someone more powerful than them knows, smiling doesn’t mean you’re happy.  It means you are being someone else, trying to survive.  An article in the Independent this week (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/harvey-weinstein-sexual-harassment-mental-health-women-suffering-anxiety-a7996511.html) suggests that most women, once they hit puberty, have to learn psychological coping skills to deal with the gaze of powerful men—and even then may be labelled as anxious or depressed.  The reaction to the hashtag #MeToo (tweeted over half a million times as of Monday, according to CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/15/entertainment/me-too-twitter-alyssa-milano/index.html) shows that sexual assault—for men as well as for women—is all too prevalent in our society, and yet those assaulted feel so alone and so threatened that it is hard to speak up about it.  For many of us (yes, #MeToo), it is safer to smile if we want to survive.  It is safer to be someone else.

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In Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival, Nini gains power through the act of dressing up as an African queen.

This coping mechanism of being someone else has various translations in literature; in children’s books, it is often through the trope of dressing up.  Dressing up can simply allow a character to try out a different persona and see if it fits; but it is interesting to look at how BAME characters in books “dress up,” especially female characters.  Prior to puberty, dressing up is about becoming powerful.  Two very different notions of power can be seen in comparing Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival (Bodley Head, 1978) with Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (Frances Lincoln, 1991).  In Lloyd’s book, the titular character is part of a carnival parade, but she doesn’t have a costume.  Her “fairy godmother” (really her friend dressed up in a fairy costume) comes along and gives her a piece of cloth in a pattern that could be intended as a Kente cloth (the royal cloth of the Akan people in Africa), wrapping it around her like an African ceremonial dress  and saying that Nini is now “pretty enough to be Queen of the Carnival” (n.p.) which Nini, in fact, then becomes.  In Hoffman’s story, on the other hand, Grace likes to dress up as story characters; “she always gave herself the most exciting part” (n.p.) according to Hoffman—which in most cases, happens to be the male part.  Lloyd invests power for his Black female character in the historical traditions of African civilizations; Hoffman invests it in male characters, and often those male characters as written by white male “classic” authors such as Kipling, Longfellow, and of course J. M. Barrie.  Guess which one of these two books has never been out of print since publication?  No wonder World Book Day costumes are fraught for BAME Britons.

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Grace in Mary Hoffman’s book feels powerful when she acts out stories of white and/or male heroes. Illustrations by Caroline Binch.

In YA books, dressing up changes from a focus on power to a focus on survival, particularly for BAME young women.  Two different approaches to dressing up can be seen in Tanya Landman’s Passing for White (Barrington Stoke, 2017) and Catherine Johnson’s The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Corgi, 2015).  In both books, the main female protagonist must escape those who have the power to destroy her happiness and security by becoming someone else.  Rosa, in Landman’s book, is light enough to “pass for white” because she is the daughter of her slave master.  Her master wants to keep Rosa enslaved, and destroy her family life and chances for happiness.  And as Rosa and Benjamin, another slave with whom she falls in love, knows, “White folks can do whatever the hell they pleased . . . And then they’d say it was your own damned fault” (3).  So Rosa dresses up in the most powerful costume she can think of: that of a rich, elderly, white man, with Benjamin as her slave, in order to escape to freedom.  A colleague who teaches slave narratives said that students often argue that passing for white is being a “traitor to your race”—but such attitudes are similar to those who say that women who accept contracts in Hollywood after being assaulted were “trading on sex”.  Survival in the face of overwhelmingly powerful enemies sometimes depends on pretending to be like the powerful.

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For BAME characters in YA novels, “dressing up” was not just fun and games.

Johnson’s book addresses sexual assault head-on, also in a historical novel, by opening her book with the main character’s rape. Mary Wilcox, alone and friendless, is raped by two farm boys even though she is dirty, weak, and “looked like a savage” (2).  Mary knew that rape happened to women “acting the coquette and suffering the consequences” (1) but when she is raped that night, she understands that it is not about women “asking for it” but about men exerting power.  And while she rejects that kind of power, she still knows that to survive, she would have to be somebody else: “an Amazon warrior woman who could turn on her attackers.  Better still, a fighting princess, a beautiful girl with a dagger at her waist and a quiver of magical arrows.  They would not dare touch her then” (4).  Mary does not become a warrior, but she does become a princess from an exotic land, the Lady Caraboo, who speaks no English but reflects back “only what your people wanted me to be” (193)—the beautiful, the strange—to a white family who takes her in.  In becoming someone else, she survives; but her disguise also allows her “to be something other than who I was; something fresh, something good, something capable of love and being loved” (194).  This heartbreaking statement—that Mary thinks she has to be someone else to be loved—rings true for many women who think that their broken self will never be good enough to be worthy of love.

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Becoming “what they want you to be” is another way to survive, as in Catherine Johnson’s novel. Cover photo by Bella Kotak.

Historical fiction is perhaps the easiest genre in which YA literature can represent the concept of becoming someone else for survival, but I want to end with one last example from fantastic fiction.  Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday, 2001) concerns a world where the power positions between Black people and White people are reversed from contemporary society.  But Blackman’s novel is less about race and more about power; both Crosses (Black people who hold most of the society’s power positions) and Noughts (White people who generally have to serve the Crosses) suffer from unequal power relations, but Noughts suffer far more.  Callum, the Nought protagonist, has a sister named Lynette, who was “beaten and left for dead because she was dating a Cross” (124).  Her way of coping with her powerlessness is through disguise: she tries to convince those around her that she is a Cross.  As a blonde, White girl, her disguise is only self-deception.  When forced to confront her despised whiteness, Lynette commits suicide, knowing she will never be able to cope with “a return to reality” (170).

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From Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s graphic novel version of Noughts and Crosses–Lynette’s “madness” is her only chance at survival.

Everyone, at every age, practices “dressing up” to be a little bit different from our ordinary selves sometimes.  But we need to be aware that dressing up can also be a way of hiding—or of surviving.  Literature for children can remind us that sometimes it is safer to be someone else in societies where powerful people get away with crimes against the powerless.

Back to the Old Country, not Back to the Past: Black Britons Consider the Caribbean

It’s Black History Month in Britain.  While David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan 2016) traces the long and multifaceted history of Black people in Britain, many ordinary Black Britons, born in the country or not, are still faced with the question, “But where are you really from?” quite regularly.

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Hallworth uses childhood rhymes and games, not to look back to the past, but to showcase a modern and multicultural Trinidad.  Illustration by Caroline Binch.

Some Black British authors are from “somewhere else” and celebrate that in their writing, not just as a nostalgic look at their own history, but as a way of providing Black British readers with a sense of community and tradition.  I’m currently working on a piece about Grace Hallworth, who is an excellent example of this kind of “looking back to look forward” in British literature.  Hallworth, born in Trinidad in the turbulent period between the two world wars, was educated in schools that valued the British example (in literature especially) as the pinnacle of culture.  But she also learned the folk stories, songs, and rhymes of the many cultures of Trinidad, European and African and Asian.  She came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation; now in her eighties, Hallworth has been in Britain longer than she lived in Trinidad, but she never forgot her roots.  As a librarian storyteller in Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Hallworth told those stories to children born in Britain (Black and white) and she eventually began to publish them.  Her books’ introductions often stress the value of multicultural communities to the production of folk culture; in Down by the River (Heinemann 1996), she writes, “As children sing and play and then pass on the songs and games of their childhood, we see a living example of the interrelationship of different cultures.  This is something for us all to appreciate and respect” (n.p.).  She is also careful to depict children singing the rhymes as part of a modern-day Caribbean; the rhymes may be old but the children who chant them are not stuck in the past.  Looking back to Trinidad, for Hallworth, is a way of celebrating the ever-changing nature of both the land of her birth and Britain.

Other Black British authors, however, are “really from” Britain.  Indeed, this is more and more the case, especially with authors of Caribbean ancestry; the Empire Windrush, after all, docked nearly 70 years ago now.  But the descendants of the Windrush generation, like many of the children of immigrants, grew up surrounded by their “home” culture of Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana, and the other West Indian islands.  And those who became writers often “look back” to the Caribbean, even when they don’t consider themselves Caribbean.  The gaze of these authors is, however, not directed at the past in the same way as a writer like Hallworth.  Instead, authors such as Patrice Lawrence send characters to relatives who stayed “back home” and explore what the Caribbean is like in the present.

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Lawrence’s Granny Ting Ting celebrates the good things about being British and being from the Caribbean.  Illustration by Adam Larkum.

Lawrence’s Granny Ting-Ting (A&C Black 2009) is an excellent example.  Lawrence, as the book’s “About the Author” section explains, is “Sussex-born, Hackney-living, from a Caribbean and Italian family” (77).  The book was part of A&C Black’s White Wolves reading series, “selected to match developing reading skills” (according to the back cover), and published in consultation with CLPE, the UK’s Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.  Granny Ting-Ting is one of the Year 5 level “Stories from Different Cultures”; but while the other advertised books Pratima Mitchell’s Bamba Beach and Andrew Fusek Peters’s Ever Clever Eva seem to be based around characters entirely from those “different cultures” (and I’ll admit I haven’t read either one, so if anyone has and I am mistaken about this, please do let me know), Lawrence’s book opens with the Trinidadian characters awaiting the arrival of visitors from London.  Michael, the cousin of Trinidadian Shayla, “was born in Trinidad, like Shayla, but moved to London when he was a baby” (8) and is now convinced that everything is better in London.  Lawrence’s narrative does not come to the opposite conclusion—that everything is better in Trinidad—but that each place has its benefits and drawbacks.  The important thing is learning to appreciate difference—and similarity.

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Blackman’s Betsey has much in common with her British counterparts–except for the hurricanes and flying fish. Illustration by Lis Toft.

Malorie Blackman is also British-born, from Clapham, but she has been told to “go back where you came from” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/aug/23/malorie-blackman-teen-young-adult-fiction-diversity-amnesty-teen-takeover-2014).  She has also said that she wants to “write books that have black characters in them, but that had nothing to do with race” (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/malorie-blackman-the-childrens-laureate-talks-writers-block-noel-gallagher-and-being-a-warlock-8942592.html).  This does not mean she doesn’t think about being Black, or having family that “came from” somewhere else, and like Lawrence she celebrates both in her books.  The Betsey Biggalow series from Mammoth present an exuberant girl character who gets into trouble and lives life to the full.  Although the illustrations and the books’ promotional material promote Betsey’s Blackness and Caribbean-ness, Blackman herself presents the books without fanfare.  Betsey is a girl who is both similar to and different from British girls.  She fights with her friends and her siblings, and likes milkshakes and trying on her mother’s makeup.  She also likes to eat flying fish, a specialty of the Caribbean, has to deal with hurricanes, and plays often on the beach near her house.  Neither Blackman nor Lawrence are writing about their own Caribbean past—nor indeed, the Caribbean past at all—but their books, as well as Hallworth’s, allow readers to connect to the history of their family without feeling like they are taking a backwards step, or worse—being forced back into the past.